Revolution in retreat

Print edition : December 27, 2013

Jubilant supporters of the Nepali Congress as the election reults are displayed on a screen outside the Constitution Assembly building in Kathmandu on November 21. Photo: NAVESH CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal waves to supporters outside a vote counting centre in Kathmandu on November 22. Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal. The Maoists rank a poor third in the new pecking order. Photo: Sanjog Manandhar/AP

The Narayanhity Palace in Kathmandu. The elections have seen the revival of the monarchist forces led by the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party of Nepal. Photo: AFP

At a polling station in Patan on the outskirts of Kathmandu on November 19. Photo: PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

The promise of a New Nepal seems to be on the retreat, with the Maoists losing people’s goodwill and squandering an opportunity to create a more democratic nation under a new Constitution.

THE REPUBLIC OF NEPAL IS HEADING towards a pattern of producing electoral surprises. Elections to the first Constituent Assembly (CA-I) in 2008 gave an unexpected victory to the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which was yet to fully adapt itself to democratic politics and newly aspired republican ethos. The November 19 elections to the second Constituent Assembly (CA-II), as the first failed to finalise the Constitution, threw up three surprises—an unprecedented voter turnout, a surprise drubbing of the Maoists who led the movement for republicanism and for building a “New Nepal”; and the revival of the monarchist forces led by the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party of Nepal (RPP-N).

The voting percentage, according to the latest Nepal Election Commission estimates, is above 77 per cent, which is an all-time high for the country, notably higher from its initial estimate of 70 per cent. This was made possible by the managers of the electoral process and the voters who defied the calls for boycott of the elections and threats of violence issued by the breakaway Maoist group led by Mohan Baidya. The splinter group, having failed to force the rest of the political parties to agree to a postponement of the elections, not only boycotted the elections but also decided to actively disrupt them, promising to ensure less than 50 per cent voter turnout. The impressive turnout was a strong message from the Nepalis that they wanted institutionalisation and stability of democracy and reconstruction and development after 10 years of insurgency and seven years of political uncertainty and confusion.

In this context, the electoral surge of the RPP-N, representing discarded feudal values and standing for the revival of the monarchy, was a surprise. This was possible because Nepal follows the system of proportional representation where against 240 directly elected seats, 335 are filled by proportional representation in a 601-member House (the rest are nominated). Although the RPP-N has failed to win any seat under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, it has garnered more than 7 per cent of the votes to claim 23 seats in CA-II. In CA-I, it had four seats. The RPP-N has taken advantage of the people’s frustration with the established political parties for failing to write the Constitution under CA-I. It also exploited people’s religious sentiments by campaigning against the secular identity of a republican Nepal and sought the revival of a Hindu state. The RPP-N chose the cow as its electoral symbol in order to appeal to the religious sentiments of Nepal’s majority Hindu voters.

The greatest and politically most significant surprise of the 2013 elections was the massive decline of the Maoists. The Maoists have been reduced from 230-odd seats in CA-I to 80 seats in CA-II, just one-third of their previous strength and ranking a poor third in the new pecking order. The top two positions have been gained by the Nepali Congress (N.C.) with 196 seats and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML, with 175 seats. In CA-I, the combined strength of both these parties was less than that of the Maoists. The vote share of the Maoists has declined from 30 per cent in 2008 to around 15 per cent this time. The number of Maoist candidates who lost their deposits is higher than those from other parties. The two top Maoist leaders, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Dr Baburam Bhattarai, could only win one of the two seats that each of them had contested. The victory margin of Prachanda in the seat won by him was narrow. Many prominent Maoist leaders were defeated. No one had hoped that the Maoists would do better or even retain their strength in the dissolved House. But many observers did not expect the N.C. and the UML to make such electoral gains.

Conspiracy theory

What explains the electoral outcome? Nepalis are debating two sets of factors to answer this question, and the reality may be a mix of both. One set underlines massive irregularities and rigging in the elections, possibly as a part of a conspiracy. The proponents of this line of explanation are not only Maoists but also other losers such as the leaders of the Terai-based (Madhesi) parties, representatives of the hitherto marginalised and excluded groups (Janjatis and Dalits), and, surprisingly, current and formal royalists. The last category includes Kamal Thapa, leader of the RPP-N, a leader of the RPP which has now accepted the republican agenda, and Dr Prakash Chandra Lohani, economist and leader of the Rashtriya Janashakti Party. Various arguments and facts have been advanced in support of the conspiracy theory. They include discrepancies in the number of votes for the FPTP and proportional representation, transportation of ballot boxes in army trucks to barracks, where they were kept for several hours without the presence of party representatives, the army’s assistance in some instances of booth capturing, and intimidation and canvassing by army personnel.

Reacting strongly to their defeat, the Maoists withdrew from the vote-counting process and submitted a strong representation to the Election Commission along with 13 other political parties seeking an independent inquiry into the alleged irregularities. The Maoists resolved that they would neither nominate their representatives to CA-II under the proportional system nor attend the Assembly until such an inquiry was instituted.

The forces that are seen to be behind the alleged conspiracy to distort the vote are the Nepalese Army, the caretaker government, including President Ram Baran Yadav, and India. India’s name has been dragged in for its alleged clout with the Nepalese Army and the caretaker dispensation. While India’s reservations about the Maoist dominance are well known, insinuation of its role in reducing the political weight of Madhesi parties is not based on sound logic. These forces are alleged to be against the writing of a progressive Constitution having identity-based federalism, inclusive democracy and a government different from the Westminster straitjacket. It should be kept in mind that in the bitter debate over issues concerning the country’s Constitution in CA-I, the Maoists, the Madhesi parties and the excluded groups of Janjatis and Dalits were fighting against the N.C. and the UML which had opposed identity-based federalism and radical restructuring of the Nepali state. This political division also extends to the proposed nature of the Nepali economy. While the N.C. and the UML are for a liberal model, the former wants a state-centric model.

The second set of explanations holds the defeated parties responsible for their own fate. In the internal debate within the Maoist party, the shortcomings in the campaign strategy were identified. Cadre mobilisation lacked dynamism and identity-based federal issues could not be explained properly to the sceptics, who feared that such federalism would divide the mixed and complex Nepali society and generate ethnic hatred and conflicts. There was a massive media campaign on these lines. The Maoist and Madhesi/Janjati campaigns failed to address such heightened fears, particularly among the Nepali middle classes.

Anger against Maoists

The Maoists and the Madhesi parties have suffered from other weaknesses as well. The radical and revolutionary image of the Maoists has taken a beating on account of the transformed elitist lifestyles of their leaders. Serious charges such as power hunger, corruption and nepotism have been laid at their doors, even by Maoist cadres. Prachanda was seen in media and popular perceptions as being generous in his promises and declarations but insincere and ineffective in delivering them. It was hoped that the Maoists would bring about concrete and fast changes to build a New Nepal. This did not happen, and the fact that CA-I was dissolved without delivering a Constitution under the Maoist-led government went against them. There is no doubt that the N.C. and the UML placed a lot of hurdles before Maoists’ plans to build peace and write a Constitution, and they are, as such, equally guilty of belying the hopes and aspirations of the ordinary Nepalis. The voters punished the Maoists harder because they had pinned greater hopes on them than on the other parties.

While the 2008 vote for the Maoists was a reflection of the people’s hopes and aspirations for a resurgent Nepal, the 2013 vote may be seen as an expression of anger and disgust. In the bargain, sacrifices made by the Maoists in adjusting to the democratic process and taking the peace process forward even at the cost of their former armed cadres have been forgotten.

Divided house

Both the Maoist and Madhesi parties have undergone schisms and splits. The breaking away of the Mohan Baidya group from the party led by Prachanda and Bhattarai was the result of ideological differences and political ambitions. In its election boycott and obstruction campaign, the Baidya group’s thrust was on doing more harm to the parent party candidates than to anyone else. There have been allegations that in some constituencies, this group mobilised votes for the N.C. and the UML for money and revenge. Even in the main party, differences on specific ideological and organisational aspects between Prachanda, Bhattarai and Narayan Kazi Shrestha (vice-chairman of the party) have been a matter of public knowledge. The differences among their respective cadres seem to have marred the party’s electoral dynamism, which was evident in the 2008 elections. The fragmentation of the Madhesi parties is characterised by the emergence of single-leader parties for getting a share in the power structure and the Madhesi leaders’ corruption and nepotism.

The electoral outcome has increased people’s anxiety and scepticism instead of offering them assurances. It may be technically possible for the N.C. and the UML to deliver a Constitution on the lines preferred by them. They together need the support of 30 or more representatives to reach the two-thirds majority required for adopting a Constitution. Some of the N.C. and UML leaders have even voiced this option. But this may be easier said than done. There are persisting rivalries within each of these parties at the leadership levels for power and patronage. There are sharp differences between the N.C. and the UML as well on constitutional issues such as the structure of government. The power-sharing arrangement between them may not be easy as the UML has already started demanding another election to choose the President in the light of the fresh mandate given to form the new CA.

There is no doubt that the Maoists, Madhesis and Janjatis will mobilise their collective strength to show their street power if the N.C. and the UML combine tries to steamroll the Constitution-making process. If that happens, Nepal will be in for another phase of instability and political logjam. Fortunately, N.C. and UML leaders, including the N.C. president Sushil Koirala, claim that their mandate is for a broad constitutional consensus and that they will do their best to get the Maoists on board. Both these parties are aware that they have a sizable chunk of Madhesi and Janjati leaders among their own ranks to neglect the broader consensual agenda of New Nepal. However, in view of the past record of the N.C. and the UML in fulfilling their commitment for a broad national consensus, the challenge before them now is formidable.

One can only hope that with the confidence gained by their newly acquired popular support and constructive support from the international community, India in particular, this challenge will be met. India, on its part, may have to revisit its own ideological fixations and political preferences about what is best for Nepal and support what genuinely emerges out of the Nepali consensus-building process. A stable, prospering and confident Nepal will serve India’s interests in the long run better than a weak and pliant regime in Kathmandu.

S.D. Muni is visiting research professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.